Does Completion Matter?

by Debra Bragg / May 14, 2013

Our newly-released Spring 2013 UPDATE Newsletter leads off with an interview of Dr. Tony Carnevale, Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by Dr. Collin Ruud, Research Specialist at OCCRL. The interview focuses on the value of receiving credentials, and the nation’s preoccupation with college completion, as well as a wide range of other current topics pertaining to higher education. During this interview, Dr. Carnevale raised concerns about college completion initiatives, asking “Completion for What?”.  The following quote comes from his interview:

I think completion is very rapidly becoming the higher education community’s Potemkin Village. I mean, it doesn’t have much meaning. Completion for what? So if you can say completion to develop human talent, or to fulfill human goals or get a job, that’s great. I think the education community is one in which it’s not their strong suit to say “completion for what,” because there’s a tendency for any industry to believe that whatever it produces has value, irrespective of its purpose, and that’s just not true. That is, if you make cars, you think cars are valuable. You don’t understand why you make 300 cars and they don’t sell; as far as you’re concerned, you made 300 more cars and that was your goal. The point is, if those cars have no use or value, then you don’t really have a standard. What you’re doing is you’re feathering your own nest. So I think completion is something of a false god, to be honest with you. It’s something that comes naturally to educators, that is, “What is it that you need to do when you go to school? You need to go to school until we say that you’re done.” We need to decide what this is for.

My belief is that if the college completion agenda raises the United State’s world rankings  on college attainment but without demonstrating real educational and economic benefits to its citizens, then Dr. Carnevale is right. Credentials that offer uncertain value may be a false promise — an academic charade — that entraps individuals in costly experiences that do not pay off.  We know from research the individuals who are most at risk are those who have the least ability to discern what’s real from what’s not — underserved student populations, first-generation college goers, and others. The fact that higher education can be used in such manipulative ways is a shameful reality that we must face. However, for decades, higher education has been a point of pride for our country.  Achievements associated with higher education are well known nationally and internationally, suggesting it is a national resource to be protected, not devalued.

To Dr. Carnevale’s question, does college completion matter?, I believe that it does. It matters a lot!  Higher education matters because the benefits of college completion matter. Indeed, Dr. Carnevale’s data suggest college completion matters when it yields an economic payoff to college graduates who also experience upward mobility. This is the legacy of the United States’ higher education system. It is about fueling the economy not only for the short term, but for the long term as well. To this end, the nation needs a college completion strategy that protects higher education’s legacy of success but expands opportunities for individual and collective benefits in both the short and long term.  We know that when this occurs, the nation benefits. The nation’s graduates engage in productive work that fulfills their aspirations for a meaningful life while also stimulating the economy. Most importantly, higher education contributes to the collective well-being of a nation, which is fundamental to democracy.

If you have thoughts or comments to share about this blog, comment here or share your feedback at